Album review – ‘The Monroes’

By Matthew Prudham

The Monroes, comprised of former and current Durham students, spent last summer writing and recording a collection of 10 tracks – nine of which are originals, the other being a cover of Childish Gambino’s top song ‘Redbone’.

The record starts off with the excellent track ‘Trading Time’. This song appears as a mix between jazz and surf-rock: the use of acoustic guitar chords reminiscent of the first albums of Circa Waves and Sunset Sons gives it a surf-rock sound, whilst the employment of a jazz organ in the latter half of the song brings out the jazz vibes. Indeed, the vocal style of lead singer Finola Southgate, who possesses a sultry, alto tone, often assists this cross-genre feel to come across not only in this track, but also the following track ‘Rustling’. The second track definitely integrates the jazz ideas, as is evident from the impromptu jazz organ solo and prominent use of piano in the bridge of the track, alongside the distorted lead guitar courtesy of Jakob Stein and bass from Andrew Cheek.

In the third track, ‘End of Transmission’, Stein takes the vocal helm, delivering a tune which carries much more of a garage rock spirit. The guitar lics here recall the work of Showbiz-era Muse or early Black Keys; the repeated lyric Turn it on to overdrive” in the coda really grips the ears, whilst the guitar sound becomes gradually more violent and edgy until the end of the track. This parallels the ideas in later track ‘Sister’s Son’, although this song holds more of a blues temperament. The chorus, featuring just the vocals of Southgate and the excellent beats of drummer Finn McCormack, is the best part of the song, in which the former’s voice is provided with another opportunity to display its dexterity and power. Recalling the later work of the Beatles, Stein’s guitar solo after the second chorus truly unwraps the blues in this track, with the distortion hitting just the right levels.

However, there are admittedly a couple of tracks that are weak on varying levels. Sixth track ‘Comedown’ opens with a funky bassline and block guitar chords, but then there is a rather sudden, confusing key change, followed by the chords progressing back to the starting key. This structure does not make sense for me, with too many chord changes as the track never relaxes; however, the song is rescued by the excellent drumming of McCormack throughout, whose skilled breaks and steady beats realistically control the whole track. Nevertheless, this track is still solid, if unspectacular – pretty much sums up the vocals of Stein here.

The same, however, cannot be said for the penultimate song ‘Waiting for the Man to Come’. Stein’s vocals here lack effectiveness, clarity and bite: in the verses, he tries to imitate the quick-flowing diction of Arctic Monkey’s frontman Alex Turner or Jake Bugg without much success, and it remains unclear what he is attempting to do. Due to its much simpler structure, as opposed to the rest of the tracks on the album, the flowing guitar chords and relaxed bass rhythms of this track do little to grasp my attention.

The two highlights of the record for me are the cover of Childish Gambino’s ‘Redbone’ and seventh track ‘Vines’ – which is most definitely a grower for me, having appreciated it more and more having listened to the whole record a few times. The former is much more than just a cover, as The Monroes really make the song their own here: they do this through replacing the synths in the original with guitars, and Southgate’s excellent vocals bring a fresh, jazzier feel to replace than the soulful croons of Donald Glover’s original. The bridge is probably the best part, with the vocals, in somewhat a characteristic occurrence throughout many of The Monroes’ tracks, only being accompanied by the rhythm section of the group, which is a very nice touch.

Meanwhile, ‘Vines’ is the most structurally complex track of the lot, kicking off with a stripped-back opening of vocals, cymbals and keys which proves extremely effective. This could have been extended a bit longer, but nonetheless, the gradual textural build-up through the addition of guitars and heavier drums is excellent and indicates additional nous that is not demonstrated in the rest of the tracks. This is further indicated by the emergence of some vocal harmony that is also lacking elsewhere. Stein’s extended lead guitar solo after the first chorus is of note also, which then links into the brilliant bridge section leading into the chorus, finishing the short-but-sweet song with a chopped-up coda version.

Overall, this record covers all boundaries, leaping from genre to genre as the quartet of musicians demonstrate that they can cover all musical bases. Whilst there are a couple of weaker tracks, the album as a whole stands as a great first output, with definite highlights. The way the band worked with the concept of a cover, completely changing and making Childish Gambino’s ‘Redbone’ their own, points out that they have great musical understanding and are not afraid to take on difficult challenges. Thus, I hope to hear more from The Monroes as the four musicians have demonstrated here their definite individual and promising ensemble talent.

Click here to listen to The Monroes on Spotify.

Album artwork: Jack Samels

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